Middle-earth: Shadow Of War Players Will Tell Better Stories Than The Game

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Middle-earth: Shadow of War WB Interactive / Monolith

We’ve waited three years for Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the continuation of Monolith Productions’ efforts to fill in the timeline between J.R.R. Tolkien’s most cherished works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And the next chapter of Talion and Celebrimbor’s story was pretty underwhelming. But the stories people tell about their Nemesis encounters, which are more chaotic than ever before, will undoubtedly shape public opinion more than any criticism Shadow of War garners along the way.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is an open-world action adventure that blends chaotic, real-time battles with the tiered equipment and evolving questlines common to the roleplaying genre. It’s the sequel to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor and picks up a short time after its predecessor. Talion and Celebrimbor have forged a new Ring of Power and are ready to renew their war against Sauron and the legions of orcs that still call Mordor home. The Nemesis system, a unique web of systems and mechanics that tells stories about Talion’s interactions with orc leaders, remains the game’s primary draw. Orc leaders still remember certain details about previous encounters, like Talion dying or disfiguring them in some way, and these encounters has been expanded to account for battle-hardened friendships, betrayal and blood brothers (among other situations).

The Nemesis system is also tied to the biggest new feature in Shadow of War: fortress invasions. Each region of the map has its own fortress, with a corresponding overlord, warchiefs and more than a dozen captains roaming the nearby countryside. Talion will take over some of those facilities during story quests but others are optional. Each can be upgraded and staffed with orcs Talion dominated on the battlefield. Siege upgrades open up slots for additional warchiefs to be assigned. Those those promotions can yield extra perks for, like giving the orc the extra push from Epic to Legendary status. Fortresses can be reinforced in a variety of ways, from metal walls to caged drakes, and invasions are the meat and potatoes of Shadow of War’s fourth act, Shadow Wars, as well as its asynchronous multiplayer mode, Social Conquest.

Shadow of War ’s marquee features do an even better job of letting players witness and tell unique, action-driven stories than Nemesis 1.0. A few examples:

  • Shortly after learning how to dominate orcs, we encountered an epic captain with a pair of ferocious-looking axes, a sweet hooded cloak (the measure of fantasy game clothing) and some face paint that screamed ‘I like killing dudes.’ He was clearly a valuable addition to the Bright Lord’s army if there ever was one. But the captain’s rank was a higher level. So we had to shame him -- public embarrassment is apparently just as crippling for orcs as it is for people -- to reduce his level and expose the orc open to domination. When we finally tracked our prey down again, the orc had ditched his Cool Guy cloak and face paint, replacing those accessories with dozens of painted hands meant to show he wouldn’t be humiliated. The orc managed two more victories over his fellow captains, pushing himself inside Need To Shame territory each time. And that’s how we learned repeated shamings take their toll on an orc’s psyche. By the time Kruk the Unashamed joined the Bright Lord, he’d driven nails through his own skull and couldn’t speak. He just laughed maniacally before charging his targets.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Middle-earth: Shadow of War Player.One
  • We’d been hunting an epic orc, whose name will forever be lost to history because we forgot to take a screenshot, for almost an hour before finally cornering him in a favorable situation. He was preparing to execute a fellow captain in a remote corner of Núrnen. But as we waited for the adversaries to weaken each other, a third captain stumbled upon Talion and charged into battle. By the time we finished fighting the unexpected guest, the two orcs we’d been watching had nearly killed each other. Talion lurched toward the fight, hoping to dominate them both before either could claim victory, but our stomachs dropped when a kill cam was triggered. Had we come this far only to lose our quarry at the last second? But the orc we’d been hunting had won. We watched with awe and horror as he pounced on his opponent, shoved a grenade into the victim’s mouth and held the unfortunate orc’s jaw shut until it was no more. But our sense of victory was short-lived. The slain orc had a perk causing him to explode on death. And the blast was strong enough to finish off our heavily-weakened target.

Nemesis interactions aren’t all memorable. For every story you giddily recount, there are plenty of encounters that follow the same pattern: hear a monologue (if the orc can speak), check their intel, exploit the captain’s weakness for a quick kill and find a new target. Thankfully, the orcs Talion faces are more unique. There are seven orc tribes, each with its own unique aesthetic, further customized by additional modifiers (like fire or poison), classes (archer, warrior, etc) and advanced classes (berserker, tracker, etc). Ologs, the larger orcs who can be mounted for brief periods, are also captains, complete with oversized armor/accessories, in Shadow of War. Orc leaders also gain additional attributes over the course of their life, some visual like an axe to the skull, others more rooted in gameplay, like becoming immune to techniques such as vaulting or stunning.

Nemesis aside, most of the narrative content in Shadow of War is just plain boring. We left a number of quest chains unfinished -- Overall Completion was only 51 percent when we saw the credits -- and would’ve tapped out on some even sooner if early steps in those “optional” quest chains weren’t used as progress gates. It’s hard to be invested in the minutiae of Talion and Celebrimbor’s war against Sauron when you’re familiar with the events that lie aheadWe enjoyed learning about the origins of some Nazgul and Bruz’s narrative arc. But Shadow of War won’t be sustained by its narrative. Fans’ tales of victory and loss will have to do the heavy lifting.

Shadow of War’s combat is balanced well. But it’s at least the sixth time we’ve seen freeflow combat in a WB Interactive game since Arkham Asylum hit stores in 2009. So it’s troubling that this system still fails to impress in some aspects. Stuns and dominations whiff more frequently in Shadow of War than they did in Shadow of Mordor. It’s not always a problem. But that unreliability can be troublesome when facing multiple captains. Combat gets repetitive during long sessions and the events surrounding Follower/Nemesis missions don’t have as much impact on the encounter as they could. There’s a clear power dynamic during executions but everything else is just two captains and their guards facing off. Sometimes there’s a graug or some caragors. Rinse and repeat.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Middle-earth: Shadow of War Player.One

The series’ combat mechanics are a bit more complex in Shadow of War. The explosive grog barrels that littered Mordor ’s battlefields are joined by ghul eggs and spider nests in the sequel. There are also rare variants of the bestiary, more powerful than the standard version, and actual benefits to bolstering Talion’s beast-taming skills. But too many Nemesis encounters still feel like carbon copies. Any captain who isn’t arrow-proof can be headshotted repeatedly for an easy kill and it’s rare you find an enemy with enough perks/abilities to make them a real challenge. Flammable orcs stand near fires and grog barrels with irritating frequency and you’d be stunned by how frequently captains will terrify themselves while trying to kill Talion.

There’s also been lots of arguing about Shadow of War’s microtransactions. For what it’s worth, we never felt pressured to spend a dime on loot boxes and never even used the orcs from the one chest that came with our Digital Gold Edition review unit. Some will still take issue with the presence of loot boxes, and the heavy-handed marketing in Shadow of War ’s UI, but there’s no need to worry about missing content. Shadow of War gives you the tools you need to see its “true ending” without buying virtual goods.

There’s no denying Shadow of War can be underwhelming. The game’s low points -- like trying to give a spider god some sex appeal -- are pretty damn low. But we keep drifting back to the game because its highs just keep soaring higher. The Nemesis stories we’ve already swapped with friends give us the drive to keep tinkering with each region’s leadership. And the reports we’ve seen online, like this one about an olog that stitched its own head back on, keep us coming back for more. If you spent more than a few hours with Shadow of Mordor, there’s little doubt you’ll find plenty of reasons to do the same with Shadow of War . And there’s little reason to think anyone curious about the first game wouldn’t find plenty to love in the sequel. There’s even a little refresher at the beginning of the game to bring you up to speed in a few minutes.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and PC.

Be sure to check back with Player.One and follow Scott on Twitter for more Middle-earth: Shadow of War news in 2017 and however long Monolith supports Shadow of War in the months ahead.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Shadow Of War Players Will Tell Better Stories Than The Game
And the next chapter of Talion and Celebrimbor’s story was pretty underwhelming. But the stories people tell about their Nemesis encounters, which are more chaotic than ever before, will undoubtedly shape public opinion more than any criticism Shadow of War garners along the way.
  • Nemesis system does an even better job of letting players witness and tell unique, action-driven stories
  • Most of the narrative content is just plain boring
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